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“Collapse” Is this what you want to happen?

June 2, 2020

I’m going to be quoting from a book, Jared Diamond’s estimable “Collapse” (first published fifteen years ago, in 2005). The book deals with case studies of historical once-thriving societies (think Easter Island, or Norse Greenland, among others) and tries to draw conclusions as to why human societies evolve to a certain level, and then collapse. Vanish.

The facts themselves, teased out by careful scientific and sociological study, are pretty alarming. How can we do this to ourselves?

I’m going to quote some passages from the book, but edit them somewhat to eliminate the idea that a casual reader might think “Oh, that was them, that’s not us.” Because, as you know Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

From “Collapse”

“This tragedy resulted from the deliberate choice of a modern elite to foster hatred and keep itself in power. This small, privileged group first set the majority against the minority to counter a growing political opposition from within. The two groups spoke the same language, attend the same schools and churches and bars, live together in the same towns with the same government. The society became divided between the rich haves and the poor have-nots, with decreasing numbers of people in the middle.

“We cannot avoid asking ourselves: how, under these circumstances, can so many be so readily manipulated by extreme leaders? All these facts illustrate why we need to search for other contributing factors in addition to ethnic hatred.”

These words come from the middle of Diamond’s book. The final conclusions that he may have, regarding our own American society today, will not be revealed until the final chapters. But we suspect what they will have to say about how we live, how we allow demagogues and social media to tell us what they want us to know, when all along we already know what we have to do.

Read the book. Share the ideas. Change the world before its too late, as it was for the Easter Islanders, the Greenland Norse, the Rwandan dead.

“Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”

May 19, 2020

Far be it from me to hint that doom is right on our doorstep, I leave it to the president to keep on making that apparent to his thinking constituents.

But there is plenty of evidence, from leading scientists and historians, that collapse, of not right on our doorstep, is rumbling up the block from the nearest corner.

I commend to you Jared Diamond’s estimable 2005 detailed study of “Collapse: How Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed.” It is a comparative history of a number of human societies that arose, grew, succeeded, and then failed into oblivion. To the armchair historian, they will be familiar: Easter Island, the Anasazi in the southwest states of the USA, the Maya, Norse Greenland. The world as we know it. . . . (That last bit is a warning. Read this book and take heed.)

The civilizations cited each had their day, quite successful some of them, before quietly disappearing. Diamond cites five overarching reasons how this came to pass, most of which were beyond the immediate control of the citizens of those civilisations. “Demands on the environment grew,” notes Diamond, “its environmental resources declined, and people came to be living increasingly close to the margin of what the environment could support.”

All of a sudden, coronavirus takes hold, societies try to fight it by shutting down, and the once-humming economy stops dead, taking with it the wherewithal of millions of unsuspecting and unprepared workers.

Take heed. “All of us moderns can get away a lot of waste when the economy is good,” he says. Just like those ancient, vanished civilizations, “We forget that conditions fluctuate, and we may not be able to anticipate when conditions will change.”

So we are discovering. What’s next?

The Joy of Reading: a rediscovery

April 4, 2020

With California’s, and lately some other states’ statewide stay at home order, most of us are thrust into a new way of dealing with physical isolation.  We are ordered to “shelter in place,” to remain in our homes unless we need to get out for necessities.  And in this brave new world, work and employment no longer qualifies as a necessity.

The arts and entertainment sections of the big city daily newspapers are now mere shadows of their former glory.  The pages once filled with movie reviews and listings, with Bay Area-wide stage productions are gone—the theaters are shuttered.

Board games can quickly become tedious, the offerings of television even more so.  The mental distractions of such intellectual opportunities are gone.

Gone, all but one.  The glorious luxury of reading.

Now more than ever we have the time to settle down with a good book—entertaining, stimulating, challenging words on the printed page, to take us into seldom visited realms of imagination.

Now is the time to engage in the long-neglected art of reading.  Bookstores may be closed to the public, but they are not out of business.  Is there something you’d like to read, something new?  Don’t go to  amazon, instead call or email your local independent bookstore, place an order and have the book delivered to your doorstep.

The two most vital enterprises to any town or city are the local newspaper and the independent bookstore.  These are more than just important services, they are the nerve center of the intellectual life of the communities they serve, and deserve and depend upon your support

“Among the Living and the Dead” by Inara Verzemnieks (book review)

January 29, 2020

On the surface, this is a memoir of the child of Latvian expats about her return to the ancestral homeland so see the old family farm and come to know the country of her origin.  In it she traces in ever-greater depths the family history, its accomplishments great and small in prewar Latvia, its tragedies and exile, its ultimate return, the final settlement of the refugees in Tacoma.

That’s the surface, the story, powerfully and poignantly told.  The depth is so much greater.  Every paragraph has the depth of a poem, to be taken in slowly and thoughtfully, because it will have great weight on everything that comes after.  Every word carefully chosen, nuanced for a particular feeling, so that the reader is transported to, say, a first day in the old house:  “The dust tasted like the passing years, bits of hair, particles of skin, molecules of worry, specks of joy.”  Or a recollection of exile:  “Was your life in Siberia all sadness?”  “Not at all.  People laughed.  There were dances.”  “Did you feel joy?”  “Now, I wouldn’t go that far.”

Or life under dictatorship:  “. . . they all began to learn that lying could be a kind of truth.  And when truth can be lies, and lies can be truth, then uncertainty is destabilized, but so is uncertainty.”

It helps to have an understanding of the utter upheaval of eastern Europe, the Baltic states, the ebb and flow of Nazi armor through Latvia, and the ultimate victory of the Soviet state. But if you haven’t got that, after you are done reading, you will.  You will share something with those who suffered and survived it.  With them you will for decades in exile of returning to your hereditary farm, your home.  In the end, the reality of it all is this:  you can’t go home again.

This is a rare book indeed, in which every page, every paragraph, every sentence is written with such care, the reader cannot help but be immersed in this true story of exile and loss, of recovery and redemption.

Among the Living and the Dead” by Inara Verzemnieks.  W. W. Norton Co. 2017

On Impeachment

January 25, 2020
SF City Hall 1.24.20.JPGSan Francisco City Hall, third day of impeachment proceedings

 

The Members of the House are bound by the oaths they have taken to uphold the Constitution, and are under a particular obligation to address impeachable offenses, irrespective of whether their bill of impeachment may or may not lead to a conviction in the Senate.

It’s clearly stated in the Constitution that Senators sitting for trial of impeachment “shall be on Oath or Affirmation,” long established by precedent found in Rule XXV of the Senate Rules in Impeachment Trials provides the text: ”I solemnly swear (or affirm) that in all things appertaining to the trial of ____, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help me God.”

Most of us, when induced to swear an oath—say, when serving on a jury or as a witness in a trial, or accepting a position of authority in government—most of us, I think, at least briefly consider that such a swearing-in is reflective of our own sense of personal honor.  That our word, and our judgment when called into play, has some value outside the satisfaction of our immediate desire, our need to influence the outcome.

We are left to wonder whether such a swearing-in, such an oath, has any meaning whatsoever.  Let us tell our Senators, to us it does.  We expect them to honor their Oath of Impartiality.

 

Serendipity, or fate? Playwrights of a unique subject meet

January 24, 2020

In the nature of serendipity, I have found a new friend whose interest in the theatrical presentation of aspects of the life and death of Raoul Wallenberg parallel my own. His for many more years than mine, and to better expression in a script.

I have a play of my own–“The Wallenberg File”–co-written with Morris Wolff, based on the 1985 trial in US District Court wherein Mr. Wolff and company successfully sued the Soviet Union for the safe return of the abducted diplomat and $39 million in damages. Carey’s play looks at the Wallenberg story from a different angle, at the way men in positions of power use the lives of others to advance their own agendas. Not entirely a new concept to the citizens of the US, as we watch the Trump impeachment unfold.

We were at the SF Playwrights Center for scene reading–my first visit ever, with the MS of my own play in hand, though I would not have put it forward tonight, my first night, waiting to see how the “scene night” unfolds, what is expected, and what happens.

What happened is, Carey’s play was about the fourth to be scene-read. The opening scene, it looked in on the shady machinations of a Soviet bureaucrat and a Swedish ambassador, as they cat-and-moused their way through an initial meeting to decide what to do with Wallenberg, who the Soviets had kidnapped and the ambassador was at least showing that he was trying to negotiate the man’s release.

We see two mid-level bureaucrats trying to seize on how this man’s life can enhance, skillfully used, can be put to work advancing their own careers. Anything familiar here?

When Carey’s scene-read was done, I turned around (he was sitting behind me in the black-box) showed him the title page of my own work, and said “We have to talk later.” More on that to come. . . . .

Advice to a young writer from Louisa May Alcott

January 20, 2020

Quoted from Life, Letters, and Journals, ed. Ednah D. Cheney, p.399-400

To Mr J. P. True

Dear Sir,

I never copy or “polish,” so I have no old manuscripts to send you; and if I had it would be of little use, for one person’s method is no rule for another. Each must work in his own way; and the only drill needed is to keep writing and profit by criticism. Mind grammar, spelling, and punctuation, use short words, and express as briefly as you can your meaning. Young people use too many adjectives and try to “write fine.” The strongest, simplest words are best, and no foreign ones if it can be helped.

Write, and print if you can; if not, still write, and improve as you go on. Read the best books, and they will improve your style. See and hear good speakers and wise people, and learn of them. Work for twenty years, and then you may some day find that you have a style and place of your own, and can command good pay for the same things no one would take when you were unknown.

. . . I have so many letters like you own that I can say no more, and give you for a motto Michael Angelos’s wise words :Genius is infinite patience.

Your Friend, L. M. Alcott

[Quoted from the book “Louisa May Alcott: Life, Letters, and Journals” pubished shortly after her death provides much insight into the life of a woman writer in the 1800s, now much in view in the current film version of “Little Women.”]